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The Origin of the term Calypso

The term 'calypso' arose after the art form had been in existence for sometime. Initially the majority of songs were sung in patois. However, during the turn of the century when the people of Trinidad were struggling with the fading of the French patois and the emerging dominance of English, many terms were simply anglicized. Thus the language of the music began to change and, according to some, so too did its name. There are in fact several theories and controversies surrounding the origin of the word. This discussion will focus on those versions outlined in the works of Daniel Crowley, Raymond Quevedo, Errol Hill and Hollis Liverpool.

Nobody seriously contends that it has anything to do with the Calypso of Greek mythology, though one commentator, after reviewing the various possible origins and conceding that "the name Calypso is a misnomer and bears no direct relation whatever to the folk music of Trinidad itself," does venture to add, "It is still not certain that the English or Americans on coming to Trinidad and hearing the expression used for the folk music and feeling its enchanting effects did not misinterpret the word to mean ‘Calypso’ of Greek mythology." The following are the main theories put forward over the years on the origins of the term Calypso: * It came from the Carib word 'carieto,' meaning a joyous song, which itself evolved into 'cariso'. * It originated from the French patois word 'carrousseaux' (which was originally from the archaic French word 'carrousse') meaning a drinking party or festivity.

This word was later transformed into other variants, namely cariso, calyso and cayiso. * It may have come from the Venezuelan/Spanish word 'caliso' which referred to a topical local song. ‘Caliso' has a similar meaning in St. Lucia; * The word 'careso' also refers to a topical song but mainly in the Virgin Islands; * It was derived from the West African (Hausa) term 'kaiso', itself a corruption of 'kaito', an expression of approval and encouragement similar to 'bravo'. This last version is the derivation that has found the most favour. Hence we find Raymond Quevedo, the knowledgeable calypsonian of the early half of the 20th century, claiming that ‘kaiso’ was the first term he knew. It then evolved into 'calypso' via 'caliso,' 'rouso' and 'wouso'.

This last term 'kaiso' has also survived alongside its derivation 'calypso' which, according to Errol Hill, first appeared as the term denoting the Trinidad Carnival song, only in 1900. ‘Kaiso’ is still used to show appreciation for a calypso that is well composed and executed. Thus Quevedo’s statement about 'kaiso' being used to describe the song when sung, as well as a means of expressing ecstatic satisfaction over what was, in the opinion of the audience, a particularly excellent 'kaiso', is still valid today.

The dual existence of an original word alongside its etymological derivative 'kaiso' is nothing new. Hence 'kaiso', in addition to its main role as indicator of appreciation and approval, is at times also used interchangeably for 'calypso'. In such a case, it has the connotation of 'genuine calypso. Recently, there has been in some circles a favouring of the term 'kaisonian' to designate one who sings ‘genuine' calypsos, as opposed to 'calypsonian' for the run-of-the-mill. Be that as it may, the term 'calypso' as we know it is now well entrenched in contemporary vocabulary as evidenced by its definition in The Concise Oxford Dictionary: * Calypso – a kind of West Indian music or song in syncopated African rhythm, typically with words improvised on a topical theme.


What is Calypso?

Calypso is a style of Afro-Caribbean music which originated in the french caribbean islands, and then after evoluted in Trinidad and Tobago at about the start of the 20th century. The roots of the genre lay in the arrival of African slaves, who, not being allowed to speak with each other, communicated through song. This forged a sense of community among the Africans, who saw their colonial masters change rapidly, bringing French, Spanish and British music styles from the french west indies to the island of Trinidad.

The French brought Carnival to Trinidad, and calypso competitions at Carnival grew in popularity, especially after the abolition of slavery in 1834. While most authorities stress the African roots of calypso, in his 1986 book Calypso from France to Trinidad, 800 Years of History veteran calypsonian The Roaring Lion (Rafael de Leon) asserted that calypso descends from the music of the medieval French troubadours. Over 100 years ago, calypso further evolved into a way of spreading news around Trinidad. Politicians, journalists, and public figures often debated the content of each song, and many islanders considered these songs the most reliable news source.

Calypsonians pushed the boundaries of free speech as their lyrics spread news of any topic relevant to island life, including speaking out against political corruption. Eventually British rule enforced censorship and police began to scan these songs for damaging content. Even with this censorship, calypsos continued to push boundaries. The first calypso recordings, made by Lovey's String Band, came in 1912, and inaugurated the Golden Age of Calypso. By the 1920s, calypso tents were set up at Carnival for calypsonians to practice before competitions; these have now become showcases for new music.

The first major stars of calypso started crossing over to new audiences worldwide in the late 1930s. Attila the Hun, Roaring Lion and Lord Invader were first, followed by Lord Kitchener, one of the longest-lasting calypso stars in history—he continued to release hit records until his death in 2000. 1944's Rum and Coca-Cola by the Andrews Sisters, a cover of a Lord Invader song, became an American hit. Calypso, especially a toned down, commercial variant, became a worldwide craze with the release of the "Banana Boat Song", a traditional Jamaican folk song, whose best-known rendition was done by Harry Belafonte on his 1956 album Calypso; Calypso was the first full-length record to sell more than a million copies. 1956 also saw the massive international hit Jean and Dinah by Mighty Sparrow.

This song was a sly comment as a "plan of action" for the calypsonian on the easy availability of prostitutes after the closing of the United States naval base on Trinidad at Chagaramas. In the 1957 Broadway musical Jamaica Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg cleverly parodied "commercial", Harry Belafonte style Calypso. Early forms of calypso were also heavily influenced by jazz such as Sans Humanitae, the extempo melody in which calypsonians lyricise impromptu, commenting socially or insulting each other, without humanity—once again the French influence. Many calypso chord progressions can be linked to twelve bar jams in jazz as demonstrated by Lord Kitchener, one of the most famous calypsonians and a melodic genius. Elements of calypso have also been incorporated in jazz to form calypso "j".


From Calypso to Soca

Music in the Caribbean plays a massive role in the lives, history and cultures of each of these island nations and it is worth familiarising yourself with the various musical genres of the Caribbean before holidaying here. Some of the music styles are more well-known internationally than others; these include reggae, calypso, salsa, bachata and merengue, with lots of people heading on dancing holidays in the Caribbean at the moment. However, there are other forms of Caribbean music, such as Soca, which are more of a localised phenomenon. While Soca may only have a cult following internationally, it is one of the most popular musical genres in the Caribbean, and arguably the most popular music in Trinidad and Tobago.

Soca originated in Trinidad and Tobago and its creation is credited to the musician Garfield Blackman, a.k.a. Lord Shorty. Blackman intentionally invented this new style of music as a reaction to fears among his peers and he that calypso music was fading away in favour of reggae music. Reggae, a music genre which developed in the 60’s, took its influences from ska, mento, older forms of traditional Jamaican and African music, as well as American R&B from Florida and New Orleans. In attempt to counteract the preference for this new form of American-influenced music over the traditional Trinidadian calypso music, Lord Shorty was inspired reinvent calypso music in an attempt to generate fresh interest. He did this by to adding classical Indian musical elements to traditional calypso music and refined the genre over ten years. Fusing classical Indian music and calypso made sense as Indians and Africans form the two largest ethnic groups in Trinidad.

Lord Shorty used Indian traditional instruments such as the dholak, table and dhantal in his new style of calypso. He called this new genre solka, which is said to be a combination of the words soul and calypso, i.e. ‘the soul of calypso’. This led some people to believe that solka was a combination of American soul music and calypso, which is untrue. The story goes that the original spelling of solka, was spelt “Soca” by a music journalist, and it was this spelling of the word that stuck. While most sources agree that the word originates from ‘the soul of calypso’, there are also those who argue that the latter part of the word was inspired by the first letter of the Indian alphabet, kah – whose position at the beginning of the alphabet is said to be symbolic of the beginning of a new musical movement. Unfortunately, Lord Shorty has passed away in 2000 and therefore this cannot be verified.

Soca music gained popularity around the Trinidad and Tobago with Lord Shorty’s 1973 hit song, ‘Indrani’. While Lord Shorty was responsible for inventing and introducing Soca music, it was Lord Kitchener who upon releasing ‘Sugar Bum Bum’ in 1978 was credited with popularising Soca across the Caribbean. Unlike Lord Shorty, Kitchener’s version of Soca was racier and more sexually suggestive than his predecessor. Lord Shorty disapproved of this and gradually moved away from Soca to work on other musical projects, converting to Rastafarianism and changing his name to Ras Shorty I. He continued to create fusion music, blending gospel and Soca music to create a new style called Jamoo.

In 1983, the artist Arrow was credited with popularising Soca music internationally with his hit ‘Hot Hot Hot’, which was later released by Buster Poindexter. Other well-known Soca hits have included ‘Turn Me On’ by Kevin Lyttle, ‘Follow the Leader’ by Soca Boys, ‘Tempted to Touch’ by Rupee and ‘Who Let the Dogs Out’ by Baha Men. If you travel to the Caribbean today you will see that Soca music remains hugely popular but has stemmed off into various sub-genres. These include power Soca – a faster version of around 160 beats a minute; groovy Soca – slower than power Soca with 115 beats a minute; raga Soca – a fusion of dancehall and Soca; and chutney Soca – a fusion of Indian chutney music and Soca. Soca in a general sense is characterised by lively, energetic melodies and driving rhythm sections created by steel drums, bass and rhythm guitars, horns, trumpets, trombones, keyboards and synthesizers. The heavy percussion, drum and base sounds of Soca music make it impossible not to dance to. Aside from Trinidad and Tobago, other Caribbean islands where you are likely to hear Soca include Barbados, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada and St Lucia.


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